The Calgary Flames’ lack of a true #1 center has been the focus of many sports writers and fans for close to twenty years…and rightly so.
The fact that the Flames have not managed to acquire this most basic piece of the puzzle, shows how completely inept the organization’s hockey operations department has been. It has been a disgrace. But at least current management realizes this.
Mr. Feaster was maligned for the overpayment contract thrown at Brad Richards and the offer sheet tendered to Ryan O’Reilly; he made jaws drop as he was reported to be in on the Vinny Lacavalier sweepstakes. However his efforts have not gone unappreciated…at least by me.
In these cases Feaster was characterized as being desperate by some. Good! He should have been. Feaster may have been unsuccessful, but at least now we all know that finally the management puts a premium on arguably the most important position on the team.
Sidebar: The Flames have been tagged with no first, and some would say no second line talent. But is that fair?
As there are thirty teams in the league, it makes sense there would be 30 players on the first line in each position league-wide. Ideally these would be distributed evenly throughout the league, but that is obviously not the case. However for illustrative purposes I am going to look at the top thirty point-scorers in each forward position and see how the Flames measured up last year.
Right wing: Lee Stempniak (18th). Jiri Hudler (tied for 30th)
Left wing: Michael Cammalleri (19th) Curtis Glencross (29th)
So Calgary has two players in the top thirty scorers at each of the two wing positions. If above average 1st line wingers were in the top ten, average 1st line wingers were from 11-20, and below average 1st line wingers occupied the 21-30 slots, it would be fair to say they have the equivalent of one average and one below average first line winger on each side. Not too bad.
Now if we look a little closer at last year’s roster, the Flames had Jarome Iginla who finished with two more points than Stempniak. They also had Alex Tanguay who finished with one more point than Glencross. So in effect, Calgary had three wingers in the top thirty (scoring) on each side. More than a person might have expected looking at the season.
And now back to the main thrust of this blog: The Flames had no centers in the top thirty. In fact, they had none in the top 60.
Center: Matt Stajan (63rd) Roman Cervenka (91st) Mikael Backlund (92nd)
Calgary didn’t have a center who produced within the loose parameters I defined for a first or even a second line player. Whoa! With so many wingers in the top thirty of their group, and being so far out of a playoff spot, I think this illustrates the importance of having a good center and underscores the negligence of the Flames’ management prior to the current regime. Not that there were not other contributing factors to the Flames most recent woes. There were, but none so glaring.
Moral: There is no such thing as an overpayment for a bona fide top line center if you don't have one.
However, the current regime has not secured a top line center. They are mired in year-one of a rebuild, making it unlikely a #1 center is coming via trade or free agency. So where does that leave the team?
Well, the good news is the Flames still have two decent wingers on each side complimented by rookie Sven Baertschi on the left and newcomer David Jones on the right as new additions. The bad news is at center, still.
Calgary’s top two centers will likely be Matt Stajan and Mikael Backlund. But that isn’t necessarily all bad.
Matt Stajan had arguably his best season as a Flame last year. He was not only Calgary’s top scoring center (as modest as that was), but he was also the team’s top +/- player. Stajan is still only 29 years old and under Coach Hartley it is not inconceivable that Stajan could get back to 57 points or more.
Mikael Backlund has skill, good hockey sense, good defense and good skating. He showed signs he was beginning to put it all together at the NHL level last year before he was injured. This could be the year Backlund breaks out. However a breakout year for Backlund would likely be 50 points.
That would give the Flames two average-decent second line centers. Still pretty scary, and that is based on two best case scenarios. Yikes!
The Flames will have some hopefuls in camp: Roman Horak, Max Reinhart, Corban Knight, Markus Granlund and Sean Monahan will all be looking to fill an opening at center. There is definitely an opportunity, but are any of these guys ready to step into a top six center role in the NHL? Not likely.
Do any of these guys have the upside to become true #1 center? This is a tougher question. I think most scouts would say Monahan has the best chance, but is far from a sure thing. So it is reasonable to assume the Flames are still in hot pursuit of a suitable candidate or two. Where are they going to find them? The draft is my guess.
Had the Flames finished a few spots lower this past year, Mackinnon or Barkov could have been a likely short term candidate to fill one vacancy. Since they didn’t, any hope for an immediate fix must be placed in irrational prayers for minor miracles-like Granlund and Monahan taking over the two top center roles. But after we wake up from that dream, we start to realize the Flames could have an even weaker season next year with a good shot at drafting Sam Reinhart. Problem solved…maybe.
Factoid: The Flames haven't had a bona fide 1st line center in his prime on the team since Joe Nieuwendyk was traded after the 1994-95 season.
As always, thanks for comin' out.
TO AVOID PROBLEMS POSTING COMMENTS PLEASE DO NOT USE APOSTROPHES